Playa wetlands in a changing climate: Taking science to stakeholders in the Great Plains

Playa wetlands for the future!

Picture yourself traveling down I-40 through Oklahoma and Texas. Or across Nebraska on I-80. Likely, you aren’t envisioning large lakes or beautifully flowing rivers (with the exception of the Platte River!). The Great Plains tend to be fairly dry, yet they contain an incredible density of small, seasonally-flooded wetlands, known as playas. 

Playas are shallow, rain-fed wetlands throughout the Great Plains. When wet, playas provide crucial habitat for many wildlife species that depend on water to survive, such as ducks, frogs, and bug larvae. When dry, playas also support several other Great Plains wildlife species because they are often the only natural lands in a region dominated by agricultural production. Playas also recharge water to the underlying aquifer, filter nutrients and chemicals from the surrounding watershed, and add recreational value to the region.

In the next 50 years, the Great Plains temperature is expected to increase substantially, and precipitation will begin to decline in all seasons except the spring. These climate changes pose an additional threat to the already vulnerable playa ecosystems. In a changing climate, it will become more important for private landowners, conservationists, and researchers to join together to preserve playas and the functions they serve throughout the Great Plains.

It’s time to get the conversation started. In an effort to assist existing outreach efforts in the Great Plains, I have been traveling to field days and events throughout the Great Plains to provide learn about stakeholder perceptions, develop educational materials, and provide field demonstrations to describe playa sensitivities to climate change and suggest conservation efforts that may help to mitigate further degradation. Field days have covered general playa characteristics, playas in a changing climate, managing for biodiversity, best management practices, and conservation support programs.

Field days have been hosted by a variety of organizations, including Playa Lakes Joint Venture, Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, Ogallala Commons, Texas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Kansas Water Office, Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, and Ducks Unlimited.

The time is upon us to work towards an integrated, healthy, productive landscape throughout the Great Plains moving forward. We can control the fate of playas in the future by thinking about how we can manage playas for the future today!

Assessing Stakeholder Perceptions

In addition to attending field days, I am working with stakeholders to describe playa sensitivities to climate change and explore conservation strategies. In partnership with the University of Missouri and Missouri Transect EPSCoR Project, I am conducting a research survey aimed at gathering information on how communities in the Great Plains currently view climate change. I am also collecting data on how communities perceive the challenges and solutions for problems caused by climate change in playa wetlands and agricultural ecosystems. Through this survey, I hope to provide tools and support stakeholder engagement through productive discussions about issues impacting playa wetlands and their functions in communities across the Great Plains.  

The request for information through my survey did not originate from NCCWSC or U.S. Government funds. The survey is being conducted independently by the School of Natural Resources at the University of Missouri and the Missouri Transect EPSCoR Project.

We are inviting community members and stakeholders to provide input on their experiences regarding playas and climate change. Access the survey here.